Sunday, April 22, 2012

Stories in the Sun: An Interview with Director Patricia Benoit

by Kim Ives (for Haiti Liberte)

"Stones in the Sun" (Wòch nan soley) is a film about three pairs of Haitian refugees, set in New York City and Haiti. A young woman struggles to forget the atrocities she's experienced in Haiti when she reunites with her husband in Brooklyn, where he barely scrapes by as a livery cab driver. A single mother, trying to assimilate in a fancy Long Island suburb, takes in her sister, a teacher and political activist who is unable to reconcile their violent youth with her sister's seemingly banal lifestyle. And a newly married man, the host of a popular anti-government radio show, finds his estranged father (a recently ousted military leader) on his doorstep, desperate for shelter. They must confront the disturbing truth of their pasts, as their stories all intersect.

"Stones in the Sun" will have its world premiere on Apr. 22 at the prestigious Tribeca Film Festival in New York City. Kim Ives interviewed the film’s writer and director Patricia Benoit.


HL: You are best known as a documentary filmmaker for your 1992 film "Tonbe Leve." What made you move to fiction?

PB: A long time ago, I had done some work in theatre, and to tell the intimate story that I wanted to tell, fiction was a better vehicle. I wanted to talk about people’s personal lives and intimate life. I think a documentary is great if you’re looking at social movements, as in a political documentary. But I personally have a problem with following people intimately, filming them intimately. People often don’t know what they’re getting into and I think it can get into a sort of voyeurism. Beyond that, I had certain things that I wanted to say, and I felt that I could only say them in a narrative. In a documentary, you go out into the world and find stories, while here, I wanted to tell a specific story. For that reason, I needed to make it fiction.

HL: Why did you need three different "stories of damaged love," as reviewer Liz Domnitz calls them, to tell the story you wanted to tell?

PB: I wanted to show the diversity and complexity of Haiti. I thought it would be dramatically interesting to have these different worlds juxtaposed because it is a complicated reality, and that’s what I was trying to capture with the film.

HL: Your focus in the film seems to be to explore the intersection of love, survival and politics. Is there a real-life story that inspired you?

PB: Not one story. I drew from different people and a little bit from my own life to see how people’s past experience with violence and repression affects their present and their future. I think we all deal with this to one degree or another: the difficulty of shedding the past, how you carry the past within you, particularly when that past has been traumatic. From talking to people, from hearing stories, and from my own life, with my parents, I wanted to show how the past can sort of radiate pain. So in the film, I try to deal with the different levels of the radiating, to show how it affects people in small ways and large.

HL: What were the biggest challenges you faced in making this film?

PB: The biggest challenge was the budget, which was really small. My script was very ambitious. We filmed in Haiti. We filmed in New York. We had multiple stories, therefore multiple locations. And it’s really hard to get money for fiction, it’s harder to get money for fiction with black people, and it’s even harder to get money for fiction with people speaking in Kreyòl. There is some English, and a tiny bit of French, but most of the film is in Kreyòl. We had to rely on people’s kindness and the generosity of friends and the Haitian community in New York and in Haiti.

The second biggest challenge was finding actors. I found some really great ones, but that meant going through friends and looking in the community for people. There are, of course, actors in New York and in Haiti, and I wanted the film to be very naturalistic. So to find actors who don’t come out of that larger theatrical tradition was difficult. But the most important thing for me was that, when Haitians see the film, they find it good and realistic. They are my primary target, and hopefully other people will like it too. I wanted it to feel authentic for people who really know about the situation. I want them to believe it.

HL: How did you marry non-actors to their roles and coach them?

PB: I had actors of varying degrees of experience. My non-actors, I didn’t give them the script ahead of time. I told them the story but didn’t give them the script because I wanted them to be in the moment. I didn’t want them practicing their lines in front of mirrors.

It’s a complicated question which is hard to answer. We all worked really hard. People have different styles of working. Even non-actors require different things. I tried to create an atmosphere in which people felt very comfortable, where they forgot about the camera and didn’t feel like they were being judged. I encouraged them to speak to each other and not perform for the camera.

I have to say, they were incredible. Acting in a film, people don’t realize how difficult it is and how schedules are constantly changing and days are really long. You sometimes have to do things over and over. We could do very few takes due to our low budget, but sometimes you have to do a take over for technical reasons. Finding the emotion again was a challenge.

HL: The film that will show at Tribeca will have to be the English version. Will you have a Kreyòl version?

PB: Well, it is the Kreyòl version, just subtitled in English.

HL: So characters living in the U.S. are speaking in Kreyòl as well?

PB: Yes, that was really important to me. For the version that shows in Haiti, I want to show it to all sorts of different groups, not just to the handful of people in Port-au-Prince who go to films like this. I’d love to show it in different communities. So I think we’ll do some dubbing of the small amount of English dialogue into Kreyòl so that people who are pre-literate can enjoy the film too.

HL: After Tribeca, what is your strategy for the film’s distribution? Are you shooting for a theatrical run?

PB: Yes, right now we’re putting the final technical touches on the film. We’re coming down to the wire. We’d like to have a theatrical run and take it to other festivals.


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